California: Peoples and Environment
Continuing with our journey around North America we journey from the Northwest Coast to just below it into California. This culture area covers what is now the state of California so the culture area is just called California. The area also extends into part of the north of Baja.
The North American Indians in this area mostly inhabited the Central Valley which was bounded by the North Coast Mountain range to the west and the Cascade and Sierras by the east. The majority of the other people settled in the strip of land between the mountain ranges and the sea and in the south of California (including parts of Northern Mexico) which then becomes the Mojave Desert in the west (Rochete 2010). The picture to the left shows the region as well as the tribes that live in different parts of the region.
This area, like the Northwest Coast is very rich with different languages and even many different cultures. This is due to the fact that this region served as a sort of “crossroads” during the settlement of the new world. When the peopling of the Americas first happened after the crossing across the Bering Strait from Siberia many groups moved down the coast from the north since most of the interior US was covered in glaciers at the time. This caused a lot of settling and resettling in this region thus the reason that there are so many different people including around 100 different languages by the time of European contact. The valleys and mountains also promoted isolation in this area which also could account for the difference in culture and languages (Rochete 2010).
It is interesting to think that this region mostly full of hunters and gatherers, especially since now a lot of fruit and other crops are grown out there. When people first settled in the area they loved along the major lakes taking full advantage of the plants and animal which at this time (around 12 – 10,000 ya) including large game like the mammoth. In fact the only people that really developed agriculture were the Mohave people who occupied the lower Colorado River area. Up until European contact most groups showed an emphasis on coastal resources, salmon and acorn collection. Acorn exploration played a major role in this area and archaeologists have dated this back to 5,000 ya (Rochete 2010).
The California environment is pretty much the same as it was back then, but now a days there is a heavy emphasis on fruit production. The climate is very mild has moderate precipitation and like the Northwest Coast has abundant resources. Like the mountains on the Northwest Coast, the California mountain ranges parallel the coast causing moisture in the air to be shed in this region. The precipitation is not as extreme as up along with Northwest Coast but the region does have plenty of precipitation (Rochete 2010).
Like mentioned early, the native groups mainly settled along the rivers, upland streams and coastal shores. This environment supplied them with plenty of food and raw material to live with. Salmon became the most popular of the fish just like the Northwest Coast as well as shellfish and sea mammals. At the start of the settling of this area big game was abundant but over the years became more scarce (there are many theories to why this is so) and there became no need for the inland mammals and birds.
Plants were also very abundant in this region especially starchy and oily seeds, berries, roots, bulbs and many different tubers. Like mentioned early the most popular by far was the acorn. The acorn became a staple part of their diet as well as supported their economy. It is easy to see then that the agricultural aspect of this region wasn’t needed until European contact, since the Europeans lacked the skills that the natives had and couldn’t survive off of the hunting and gathering ways (Rochete 2010).
2010. Anth 146 Lecture for October 23, 2010.
The Pennsylvania State University.
Photo Courtesy of the California Digital Library